There is nothing quite like the fierce reaction among U.S. soccer fans and pundits that meets a U.S. game lineup release. It is a phenomenon that has become beyond a given in the hour that starts when U.S. Soccer sends out its highly anticipated and quickly disseminated tweet and ends with the first kick of a given match.
The reaction during the Jurgen Klinsmann era has tended to be a bit more extreme, because there always seems to be a surprise wrinkle that keeps his selections from being deemed as completely acceptable by those who judge his every move. That aspect of the lineup release is about as consistent of a theme as there has been in his time as U.S. coach - an uneven era that has seen the highs of winning in Italy and Mexico, and the lows of struggling to score goals in an effort to reach next year's hexagonal.
The consistency issue that has plagued the national team is tied into the lack of continuity when it comes to personnel on the field. Even though there are a myriad of reasons why the U.S. men can look so prolific in routing Scotland, and then appear so lackluster at Canada and Jamaica and against a minnow like Antigua and Barbuda, one glaring explanation is the constant shuffling of lineups that has hampered the team from finding a continuous rhythm.
Klinsmann has not used the same lineup in consecutive games once in his tenure as USA boss. Some of the circumstances, such as injuries, suspensions, club form, apparent commitment issues (ahem, Mr. Chandler) and clubs refusing to release players for friendlies, are out of his control. The January camp also offers up a far different roster selection for Klinsmann than his evolving A-Team of players. While getting a look at as many players as possible is all part of Klinsmann and his coaching staff getting to know his roster pool better, the constant change can be attributed to why the USA appears to vary so drastically in its performance from match to match.
"I think for us as a coaching staff, you get your hands on the group, make the group bigger and introduce new players and you look through the system here in the U.S. with the Under-23s and Under-20s if there are young, promising players coming through then you try to get them connected to the senior team, which we did," Klinsmann told reporters at a press conference on Monday. "The entire process has a lot connected into World Cup qualifying, where the major concern is to get your points and qualify. It is a team that is growing and changing."
The closest Klinsmann came to using consecutive lineups was starting 10 of the same players in two friendlies last October and again in the two June qualifiers against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala, with the insertion of Fabian Johnson at left back for Jose Torres being the only change. Going into Tuesday night's CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal round finale against Guatemala, Klinsmann, with an abbreviated 19-man roster due to injuries and suspension, has an opportunity to break that streak by churning out the same group that gutted out a win in Antigua, but his track record would suggest otherwise.
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Upon replacing Bob Bradley as head coach, Klinsmann had 13 friendlies prior to the beginning of 2014 World Cup qualifying to sort out a true first-choice group and mold it into a well-oiled machine in time for the games that matter. Instead, more than 14 months into his tenure there is still not close to a 100 percent certainty as to who will line up as the front six of his changing formation, or what exactly his player pool's identity really is.
Bradley's teams relied on peak fitness, gritty defending, opportunistic scoring and set-piece proficiency. Klinsmann has tried to bring his high-octane, high-pressure system to his players, who might not completely possess the traits to alter playing styles on a dime. It does not help that the same group of players has never appeared with each other in consecutive games while trying to embrace the new philosophy.
In 17 non-January-camp matches, 27 players have earned starts (that number shoots to 36 starters in 19 matches, taking into account the January games that are played with an MLS-heavy, second-tier U.S. roster). It has not benefited Klinsmann that a vital player like Landon Donovan has been so frequently unavailable during his tenure as coach, and there is something to be said for keeping an open mind to reward deserving players who have played their way into the fold. However, managing a roster to shape cohesiveness and a rhythm can be just as vital as providing the tactics to go along with that. Klinsmann has yet to demonstrate the trust in a set group, instead shuffling around the names at his disposal while continuing his search for the winning combination.
"Over time, obviously, a team develops more fine-tuning, a better understanding, movement off the ball, certain players make certain runs and you read them better and you read them earlier," Klinsmann said. "As a coach, you always have to react to certain different challenges and also the availability of who you have. Injuries kick in like they kicked in now, and you adjust to it and give the players that come in the confidence and belief to settle in and connect to these guys."
That may be so, and simply trotting out the same XI over and over is not necessarily the fix-all answer, but then again, neither is continuing to experiment at a time when the results directly determine whether the USA will reach the World Cup for a seventh straight time. Some semblance of balance has to be struck to ensure consistency and eliminate disjointedness, and the product on the field suggests that balance has not yet been found ahead of a make-or-break year.